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To Hell and back – Gamkaskloof (Die Hel) revisited

Author: George Yannakopoulos

In a Subaru Outback

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Great dinner on Saturday night – perfectly rounded off by a 1993 Chateau Mouton Rothschild. Thanks, Stellio! Sunday morning dawned and with it came the need for a decent breakfast but unfortunately “force majeur” conspired to create a power outage. But all is not lost. In the driveway gleams a Subaru Outback. Not quite the range-topping model – that honour goes to the ” oh so smooth” 3.6l V6 – but a 2.5l luxury All Wheel Drive vehicle nonetheless. Really, in today’s context in South Africa, considering the roads, beautiful country and our love for the outdoors, it leaves me gobsmacked why Subaru does not sell thousands of these models annually! But today I am one of the privileged few. I have one at my disposal.

So, vague thoughts of a drive to Gamkaskloof take shape and 8:30 sees the Subaru Outback from Action Rentals pointing its nose in the direction of Oudtshoorn. A relaxed drive through De Rust and Meiringspoort offers a very unique experience indeed. If you haven’t been to this part of the world, or if you haven’t visited it recently, it is well worth reacquainting yourself with it. De Rust is the perfect base from where to enjoy an active holiday, from climbing and mountain biking in the Kamanassie and exploring the Cango Caves, Meiringspoort or Seweweekspoort, to visiting Gamkaskloof (also known as “Die Hel” or “The Hell”) and Prince Albert via the Swartberg Pass. Visit an ostrich farm or go on a wine route excursion to treat your taste buds to some of the country’s finest cuisine, or you can even go fossil-hunting on the endless plains of the Great Karoo. We, however, will not indulge in an adrenalin activities today. Leaving the breathtaking views of Meiringspoort behind, we hurry to catch breakfast at the hotel in Prince Albert.

Mission accomplished!  A slightly delayed breakfast but re-energising in the extreme. Spinach and Popeye come to mind… But then it was time to set off on our mission for the day. Gamkaskloof 37. Travelling time: two hours. So reads the sign in the Swartberg Pass which indicates where to turn towards this World Heritage Site. It is a nice gentle start to this road which, although a bit rocky, can be safely and easily traversed in your Subaru. Giant rocky outcrops and lots of proteas characterise the route. The damage caused by a fire a couple of years ago is now barely visible. New shoots hide the scarred vegetation. The scenery should, however, be enjoyed with caution, as the treacherous terrain can challenge a distracted driver. No real challenges en-route, but the narrow roads and wild terrain do require focus and concentration – encountering a car travelling in the opposite direction will often require one of the vehicles to reverse to where the road allows for a safe passage. The Subaru’s reverse camera earns its keep here. While always useful in manoeuvring what is undoubtedly a big vehicle, it allows accurate and effortless positioning on the road. Even more so on the final approach to Gamkaskloof where the descent is steep and the road barely wide enough for one vehicle in places.

And so, after a relatively slow but comfortable two-hour drive, we arrive at “Ouma Sannie se Winkel” for an ice-cold drink and to stock up on delicious fig preserves, and of course, enjoy a chat. It is out of season and visitors are few. We smile at the story of the tourist who drove this route in his normal vehicle. He misjudged the depth of a stream and the error resulted in an expensive recovery exercise. Not much risk of that happening to the Outback. X-drive and nearly 215mm of ground clearance will see you effortlessly through. Maybe that’s is why Popeye sprang to mind earlier. All Subaru SUVs seem to have the ability to switch from effortless cruiser and suburban run-around to strong and capable off-roaders – without a leaf of spinach in the tank!

After a short walk and some leg-stretching, it is time to begin the return leg of the trip. Just as scenic and breathtaking, and approaching from a different direction it changes one’s perspective completely. A couple of hours later we find ourselves back in the Swartberg Pass. We take a sharp right this time and return through the rest of the Swartberg towards Oudtshoorn. This is again a beautiful drive but enough to rekindle any buried vertigo issues! The descent takes us to Kobus se Gat– a windswept restaurant on a desolate hillside – where a burger pacifies the hunger pains.

The final stretch passes unobtrusively and, upon our arrival home at 19:00, we are elated to find that the power has been restored.

Ten hours in the car and none the worse for wear! A great outing made effortless by the Subaru Outback. The onboard computer indicates a fuel consumption of around 9l/100km. Impressive in real-world scenarios of both high speed on-road and slow off-road travel? And this from a 2.5l automatic petrol-powered four-wheel drive SUV that accommodates five people in comfort and still allows for a couple (or more) Colemans in the boot? Hugely impressive!

I would have happily done it again the next day as I didn’t buy enough fig preserve, you see…

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